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Tycoon seizes control of Man Utd

Malcolm Glazer
Manchester United

LONDON, England -- U.S. sports tycoon Malcolm Glazer has seized control of British football club Manchester United, lifting his stake from 28.1 percent to about 70 percent, and launching a formal bid for the remainder.

Glazer's share purchases on Thursday value the UK Premiership club at £790 million ($1.5 billion).

Glazer, who also owns the Florida-based NFL team Tampa Bay Buccaneers, agreed to buy a 28.7 percent stake in the club from Irish race horse magnates John Magnier and J.P. McManus for 300 pence a share.

Manchester United's third-biggest shareholder, Scottish mining millionaire Harry Dobson, later sold his 6.45 percent stake to the Glazer camp, according to sources close to the deal, Reuters reported.

Shares in Manchester United jumped after the announcement and closed 12.9 percent higher at 299 1/4 pence on Thursday.

But some Manchester United fans have voiced vigorous opposition to Glazer's takeover and have vowed to resist it. Individual investors own about 18 percent of the club, a 15-time winner of the English soccer championship and one of the best-known sporting franchises in the world.

Sources close to the deal said Glazer was confident of reaching a key 75 percent level within days.

Glazer, who first bought a 3 percent stake in the club in 2003, has twice had his plans to win control of it rebuffed.

With a 50-percent plus majority, Glazer has effective control of the club. If he reaches 75 percent he can delist Manchester United's shares. At over 90 percent he can force out any remaining minority shareholders.

Manchester United said it was awaiting the terms of the offer before making any further announcement.

Earlier, the official Takeover Panel had set a deadline of May 17 for Glazer to announce whether he would make a formal bid.

"Glazer is in the driving seat, although he's had to go a bit hostile without the board's approval," Richard Bullas, fund manager at Rensburg Investment Management, told Reuters.

Glazer initially offered $1.5 billion for United on April 14.

Thursday's announcement by Red Football Ltd, acting on behalf of Glazer, comes after United's board members last month said they "could not recommend any offer made on the basis of the current proposals."

United said it recognized that the proposed price of 300 pence a share was a fair one but that concerns remained about the proposal, particularly as it said assumptions in Glazer's business plan appeared "aggressive."

Some United fans claim the financial stability of the club could be undermined because Glazer would have to borrow heavily to finance his takeover.

"From our perspective this is the nuclear option. We did not expect the Irish to sell, especially at three pounds a share," said Mark Longden, spokesman for the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association.

"This is a massive shock to us and these two (Magnier and McManus) have shown their true colors. They have never been interested in Manchester United or football," he said.

Fans begin protests

Supporters' groups, whose vociferous opposition helped prevent a 1999 takeover by satellite TV company BSkyB, demonstrated at Old Trafford against the deal.

Fans say Glazer has no knowledge of the football side of the club and is interested purely in its brand, rivalled only by Real Madrid, and revenues.

They fear his offer will saddle United with heavy debts, forcing up ticket prices and diverting funds which could be used to improve the team which finished a disappointing third this season.

United fans had planned to boycott last Saturday's home match against West Bromwich Albion to protest against Glazer's takeover moves before calling it off 24 hours before the game because they feared the boycott would fall flat.

"He's got himself an extremely tainted asset - this is by no means over," said Oliver Houston of Shareholders United.

"Even if Mr Glazer succeeds in getting all-out control, the campaign by fans to show that no customers equals no profits will continue.

"If that means starving ourselves, and starving the club of income, in order to make this parasite detach himself from us, then so be it," he added.

Stockmarket analysts believe that there is little anti-Glazer supporters can do to prevent the takeover if city institutions decide 300 pence a share is a fair price.

However, the fans are emboldened by the memories of the takeover attempt by Australian-born American Rupert Murdoch whose $1 billion bid was accepted by United's board.

After a vociferous campaign by fans, the bid was turned down by British anti-monopolies officials who said it would not have been in the public interest because it might have reduced competition for Premier League broadcasting rights.

"A takeover is never inevitable and I urge all other shareholders not to sell," added Longden. "There are far more opposed to the Glazer bid than when Murdoch tried to take over because people are more politically aware. The fight goes on until we are FC United."

Old Trafford is the biggest club ground in England, holding 68,000. United want to increase this to almost 76,000 which will still not be big enough to contain the number of fans from all over the world who want to watch the club.

United estimate its global fan base at more than 75 million, including 40 million in Asia and just 4.6 million in the Americas where Glazer has marketing expertise.

"We've got members in over 85 countries around the world, this is not just about people who are going week-in, week-out," said Houston.

"This is about the television audiences, Manchester United's tie-up with sponsors - people are not going to want to be associated with a Malcolm Glazer-owned Manchester United."

Glazer's bid comes at an awkward time for the club and frustrated fans.

United have been eclipsed by Chelsea, owned and funded by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, this season and have now gone two years without winning the English title, unknown since the early 1990s.

The feelings of the fans will have the perfect setting at the FA Cup final on May 21 in Cardiff where United will play arch-rivals Arsenal.

Supporters' websites are already calling on fans to burn their letters from the club about 2005/06 season tickets.

"If he takes over there's no way I'll set foot in the ground ever again and a lot of people think that," said Longden. "When the call goes up 'Stand up if we're not for sale' 90 percent are against it."

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